Criminals are using the tools intended to protect consumers to attack them through techniques that are becoming more successful with each passing month.

Phishing — especially phishing involving websites claiming to be from financial institutions — is growing, and criminals are getting better at their craft. A new report shows how attackers are using messages that closely mimic legitimate bank promotions to entice users to open email messages and click on links, then using those clicks and opens as the first step in campaigns that steal credentials, embezzle funds, and plant ransomware or other malware across systems.

The report, “The State of Financial Phishing” for the first half of 2019, demonstrates that one of the principal tools in fighting online fraud — the green “lock” icon that shows the website is protected by encryption — has now been co-opted by criminals to create a false sense of security in their malicious Web traps.

Criminals have found that the same free certificate authorities (CAs) making it easy for legitimate small businesses to protect their websites enhance the look and feel of bogus, criminal sites. Bob Maley, chief security officer at report sponsor Normshield, says that free CAs like LetsEncrypt have helped small organizations but with significant unintended consequences: “The shift to using domains with certificates changes the game,” he says.

According to the report, the first six months of the year saw a 14% increase in domains potentially used in phishing campaigns and double the number of phishing domains that were certified by registrars. That works out to more than 1,900 potential phishing domains that were registered in the first half of 2019.

Maley says the rate of phishing domain registration is increasing, and he expects more than 3,500 new criminal domains will be registered by the end of the year. Many of those, he says, won’t be used quickly; attackers will let them “age” so that protection algorithms designed to protect users from “quick hit” campaigns won’t be triggered.

Those criminal domains are using techniques like TLS or SSL certificates to look more legitimate. The researchers say the 8.5% of phishing domains that used a valid encryption certificate in 2018 will increase to 15% of sites with a legitimate green lock icon in 2019.

“My take on this is that cybersecurity professionals really need to understand that there’s a strategic process being followed by both sides,” Maley says. “OODA — observe, orient, decide, and act — is a war-fighting concept that everyone uses. Some just do it quicker.”

The great danger is that criminals are going through the OODA loop faster than the defenders, Maley says. And he points out that security professionals could take concrete steps to get ahead of their adversaries.

He recommends searching for URLs likely to be used in legitimate business transactions and being vigilant about several critical points. First, avoid clicking on two- or three-letter domain names because they’re so easily spoofed. The same, he says, is true of highly generic site names. Block these in internal Web filter software and, Maley argues, make life a little easier for your peers.

“Identify phishing domains that are applied to your company and take those down” with DMCA and other legal takedown demands, he says.

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Curtis Franklin Jr. is Senior Editor at Dark Reading. In this role he focuses on product and technology coverage for the publication. In addition he works on audio and video programming for Dark Reading and contributes to activities at Interop ITX, Black Hat, INsecurity, and … View Full Bio

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